Monday, March 14, 2011

"Libya - Revolution, or Civil War"

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Libya – Revolution, or Civil War?”
March 14, 2011

When violent protests within nations succeed, they become revolutions; when they fail, they are known as civil wars. In our two hundred and thirty-six years, we have experienced both – the American Revolution, when the protestors (with necessary aid from the French) successfully beat back the British, and the American Civil War, when southern secessionists failed in their attempt to establish a confederacy. During the American Civil War, the British, while sympathetic to the southern cause, as their mills were dependent on American cotton, did not intervene.

Violent protests have broken out across North Africa and in parts of the Middle East. Libya has become the most recent focus, with their thuggish dictator, Muammar Gadhafi, once on the ropes, but now looking to maintain power. As with all of these outbreaks, the question becomes, are they bids for democracy, or do they incorporate a cynical manipulation of events by Islamic extremists to create chaos, thereby allowing an opening for conservative Muslim clerics or groups like Al Qaeda to assume control? The assumption, perhaps fairly, is that it is the former.

The United States, like England in 1861, must decide what its role should be. As the world’s only super power and as a beacon for those who strive for freedom and democracy, the United States bears a unique responsibility. Nevertheless, the country must act in a way that serves its best interests – economic and political. Sometimes that means dealing with those we neither like nor trust, and that includes many Middle East leaders, because of the oil under their deserts or because of their strategic locations. In the case of Libya, while the instinct is to help those seekingr democracies, this country is neither politically strategic nor economically critical to the U.S.

Interestingly, even the Arab League, whose members consist of Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, has called for an implementation of a “No-Fly” zone. France, which has far greater economic ties to Libya than does the United States, has already recognized the rebel factions. The arguments for intervention are based largely on humanitarian needs, a legitimate reason, for democracies are not only upholders of human rights, they are less likely to cause international strife than dictatorships. In the U.S., as Ross Douthat writes in this morning’s New York Times, “…it’s striking how quickly the coalition that backed the Iraq invasion has reassembled itself to urge President Obama to use military force against Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi.” If Libya’s Gadhafi succeeds, as looks increasingly likely, the consequences for the rebels will be severe. Their leaders will not likely be granted the magnanimous treatment provided Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee by President Andrew Johnson in 1865.

Nevertheless, as George Friedman, of Stratfor, mentioned on Friday, “The world’s focus should be on the Persian Gulf, not Libya.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has warned that the implementation of a “No-Fly” zone would require the destruction of Libyan military aircraft on the ground and fracturing their airstrips – an act of war. And, as much as the Europeans (who have a greater economic stake in Libya than does the U.S.) would like us to proceed with such action, actual combat missions would essentially be carried out by Americans, not Europeans. Intervention, no matter the high-minded reasons, does not always work. Arms we provided insurgents in Afghanistan in 1989, who were fighting the Soviets, ended up being used by the Taliban, who harbored Al Qaeda and ended up being used against us. Mr. Douthat concludes that military intervention requires that the threat to our national interest must be compelling and that the case for war airtight. “With Libya,” he writes, “the case has not yet been made.” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argues against a military intervention, agreeing with George Friedman and Ross Douthat. Mr. Haass writes: “Libya is far from the most important country in the Middle East – both in terms of political influence and its impact on the oil market.” America’s policy makers would be wiser to focus on maintaining stability in Saudi Arabia and fomenting dissension in Iran.

America does not have the resources to fight every war. However, there are things we can do – impose trade barriers, freeze assets, politically isolate regimes, such as that of Gadhafi, and provide clear moral support. It is the lack of decisiveness that is hurting the Obama administration in this instance. Comments from the President that he is “organizing a series of conversations,” or “slowly tightening the noose,” serve to make our country appear weak and indecisive. In his desire to be the “anti-Bush,” the President, in seeking world approval for every external move, sends a message of vacillating on the concept of American exceptionalism. In contrast, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, speaking to a joint session of Congress last week, was clear and laudatory of Americans. She spoke of her parents’ generation being inspired by the landings at Normandy and of hers with the landing on the moon, thinking “Americans can do anything.” She added that she still believes that to be true.

It is a message that President Obama should take pride in iterating. Our country is far from perfect and is certainly not a paragon of virtue, but relative to the way most of the world lives, these shores continue to be the ones most people aspire to. That does not mean we have to militarily support every uprising. We cannot. We must act in our self interests, but there should be no question as to where we stand when it comes to speaking out for the morality of human rights.

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